- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — The Big Easy will be a city virtually empty of children, and thus far from normal, for the next several months as it recovers from Hurricane Katrina.

Dozens of schools were irreparably damaged by the storm, and only a few are expected to open before January.

Few day care centers will be available for preschoolers, and health officials warn that children are at extra risk of contamination if they come back before the city is thoroughly cleaned of the residue of the foul floodwater.

Sandra Adams, executive director of Louisiana Maternal Child and Health Coalition, said the public schools might not be fully operational until next autumn.

“It’s going to be a city without children for some months,” she said. “Some people say the only way to fix the New Orleans school system is to start from scratch, and I think we’re at scratch today.”

“It’s a big concern of ours,” said the Rev. William Maestri, superintendent of the city’s Roman Catholic schools. “We want our families back.”

Until they do return, a whole sector of the economy will be in limbo, including child care workers, teachers, pediatricians and owners of child-oriented stores.

Numerous New Orleans teachers, faced with payroll problems and no work in their home city, are finding jobs elsewhere. By the tens of thousands, New Orleans’ children are scattered across the United States, enrolling in schools.

Arthur Johnson, a lifetime New Orleans resident, said one of his adult daughters evacuated and placed her four children in Texas public schools, where they were faring better than in their hometown school.

“We have bad schools here,” he said. “We’ve been knowing that for years.”

On Saturday, Mayor C. Ray Nagin underlined some of the concerns when describing his plan to repopulate the city, saying he wanted to minimize the number of children and elderly in the earliest phases.

“We’re talking about people who are mobile. We’re not asking people to come back who have a lot of kids, a lot of senior citizens,” he said. “That’s going to be the reality of New Orleans moving forward.”

New Orleans officials hope to open a few schools Nov. 1 on the West Bank, a section of the city relatively unscathed by Katrina. But the school board president, Torin Sanders, said a broader reopening in the main part of the city probably wouldn’t occur until January — and even that would involve only a limited number of the 126 public schools.

The plan, he indicated, would be to open certain schools that suffered little damage, accommodating returning students even if they lived in other neighborhoods.

Many parents also are likely to fear health risks upon returning to a city where the water supply was tainted and almost every neighborhood — including schoolyards and playgrounds — was coated with bacteria-fouled floodwater.

“Kids are more susceptible to toxins, bacterial contamination,” said Dr. Keith Perrin, president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They absorb things differently than adults. They’re more prone to putting things into their mouths.”

Any child returning in the near future should receive a tetanus shot, Dr. Perrin said, although he noted that local vaccine supplies had been depleted by heat damage when cooling units failed during the flood.

Local pediatricians are likely to lose many of their young patients, at least for the next few months, but Dr. Perrin predicted that most would do fine serving children from suburbs where schools are expected to reopen soon.

For some tourists, the idea of a child-free New Orleans might seem almost appropriate, given that visitors are lured by gambling, business conventions and the French Quarter’s late-night drinking and naughtiness. Locals don’t see their city that way.

“A lot of people think of Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras — things that are very adult-oriented,” said Mr. Sanders, the school board president. “But New Orleans is a very family-friendly place. People from here know that.”

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